A Year On: Time to Change Course

I suppose you could make a case, and in fact not a bad one, that the bombings of hotels and attacks on hotels and patrols in Basra, Baghdad, Falluja and Baquba should be viewed in some context. Even if things were going reasonably well, we could have expected opposition forces to be able to muster enough resources to create some chaos around the first anniversary of the start of the war. And even if things were going reasonably well, there would be some opposition forces.

Fine. The recent violence doesn’t necessarily make the case, in and of itself, that the occupation has been a failure. But there is plenty of other evidence. Perhaps the strongest is that the United States, in part because of demands from the Shiites and in part because the Bush administration does not want to have a continuing overt civilian occupation in place once the presidential campaign starts heating up in earnest – which might turn out to be pretty hot, considering how bitter it’s become at this early time in the cycle of the Campaign Eternal.

Whatever the president and his henchpersons may say in public, they know it’s not going well, that it has the potential to blow up in their faces at any moment. Better to be able to say – who’s likely to worry much about one more misrepresentation – that the noble Americans tossed out the evil Saddam and gave the Iraqis not only their freedom but the pearl of great price – democracy someday.

Can anything be said on behalf of the war? Certainly it is welcome that Saddam Hussein, one of the more reprehensible dictators of our time (though hardly the most heinous), was ousted from power and has been captured. By most accounts Iraq’s infrastructure – water, electricity, phone service, oil production and transportation – has been improved. And some of the squabbles revolving around how and to whom titular power will be handed when the Iraqis assume nominal sovereignty at the end of June suggest a genuine interest in governance that is essential for anything resembling democracy.

That’s about it.


On the other side of the ledger, it is almost impossible to calculate how disastrously things have gone. Just for starters, Saddam has been captured and he’s still being held in jail, but there’s no consensus on what to do with him. Presumably he will eventually be turned over to something resembling the Iraqi government. Will that government seek the death penalty, or will the U.S. (which will still have more than 100,000 troops in Iraq and in a position to have influence if not dictatorial control) pressure the Iraqis not to seek the death penalty in order to avoid alienating any further the European and other countries that don’t use the death penalty any more. Or will there be pressure to turn him over to the war crimes tribunal at the Hague? The issue is fraught with opportunities to divide the Iraqi people, and to bring Iraqis into conflict with the US and other countries that might be inclined to render assistance. And that’s just a minor issue.

There is certainly no denying that 556 US servicepeople have been killed and 3,200 wounded, and more were killed since “active” military operations were declared over than during the actual war. Iraq is a dangerous place for Americans and Iraqis who cooperate with them. Most of the evidence suggests that it is becoming more dangerous, not less. Although the Americans are focusing better at force protection, which is one of the reasons the terrorists/insurgents/whatever are going after softer targets, that increases their isolation from the Iraqi people, which is more likely to increase resentment toward the occupiers than to win hearts and minds..

Neither military nor civilian authorities have good intelligence, and the country has become a magnet for foreign terrorists. Nobody in authority will say exactly how long US troops are expected to stay there, but the best bet is that it will be measured in years rather than months. That, of course, will stretch US military resources (many military people are already starting to grumble that they are seriously overstretched already. Keeping so many troops in Iraq for an extended period – and with troop rotation and training time, it means many more than 110,000 will have to be committed solely to this operation – diverts attention and resources from terrorist threats elsewhere. Events yesterday in Pakistan and Kosovo suggest that other battlefields may be more important in the months to come.

The war has been deeply divisive, both in this country and in Iraq. A recent Gallup survey shows 55 percent of Americans believe the war was worth it and 43 percent don’t. That’s a slightly lower level of disillusionment that back in January, but the level of American discontent has otherwise been rising.

An ABC News poll of Iraqis shows a bare 49 percent favor democracy, compared to 28 percent who prefer a strong president for life and 21 percent who want an Islamic state. Only 35 percent of Sunni Arabs and 40 percent of Shiite Arabs favor democracy. Only 51 percent of Shiite Arabs and 24 percent of Sunnis think the US>-led invasion was right, while 63 percent of Sunnis and 35 percent of Shiites think it was wrong. Only 21 percent of Sunni Arabs think the invasion liberated Iraq, as compared to 66 percent who think it humiliated Iraq. Some 43 percent of Shiites (who suffered most notably under Saddam) think the US invasion liberated Iraq, while 37 percent think it humiliated Iraq.


It is still possible to imagine that things will turn around sufficiently to cause most Americans to view the Iraqi experience as a successful venture that they would like to see repeated, perhaps in Syria or Iran, as certain neocons are still urging. But I doubt it. Thus the question should become, how can we avoid making such costly mistakes in the future?

Some will argue that better intelligence – perhaps including an absolute prohibition on the kind of Office of Special Plans “stovepiping” that got raw intelligence data of the kind the administration wanted desperately to believe to top officials without the bother and inconvenience of being analyzed by people with experience – would do the trick. But it’s unlikely.

The US intelligence system could certainly stand improvement, and any and all investigations into what went wrong that led to so many people believing incorrectly that Saddam certainly – of course, no doubt at all – had nasty weapons and the desire to use them should be encouraged. The failure was egregious and in a government that valued integrity – or even having reasonably accurate information so as not to be too terribly embarrassed – heads would have rolled long ago.

However, intelligence will never be perfect, and the temptation to politicize it didn’t begin in the Bush administration. In the final analysis the heads of all the various intelligence agencies work for the president. If he wants intelligence unvarnished and unslanted, they’ll do their best to give it to him that way. But if he wants it to justify a policy course he has already decided on, they’ll do it that way. So simply figuring out what went wrong with the intelligence agencies and trying to reform them won’t do the job.


Preventing future wars will require rethinking policy on a more fundamental level. The Iraqi was sold to us as a preemptive war, and even many critics of the war refer to it that way. Continuing to buy into that terminology, however, is a mistake.

The most important lesson from the war is to make the distinction between pre-emptive and preventive wars and resolve not to engage in preventive wars in the future.

A preemptive war, even under the set of customs and pretenses that some choose to call international law, can be justified when you know an attack is genuinely imminent. Of course, that means imminent – troops massing along a border, solid knowledge that missiles are being armed and retargeted, planes gathering in attack mode and loading bombs, that sort of thing. Attacking first in such a situation is a preemptive war. Administration spokesmen before the war tried to create the impression of an imminent threat and thus a justifiable reason to attack by using every word in the Thesaurus besides “imminent” and sometimes slipping that one in.

The United States, however, engaged in what is more accurately termed a preventive war. A preventive war is designed to neutralize a potential threat that might or might not materialize in the near future. Knowing that intelligence is always imperfect (and it will be even if the failures prior to the war prompt improvements) preventive war is a doctrine unworthy of a free country that wants to remain free. The experience of Iraq should convince most Americans – especially if we help them understand the difference between preventive and preemptive – that preventive wars are not a good idea.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).